“There’s one 12-pounder that hangs around that rusted piling, and another 8-pounder just past it; maybe more down the beach.” Mike said, dropping me off on the narrow sliver of land outside the harbor. “They’ll be along the dropoff, in about two feet of water. I’ll pick you up on the far end after we drift the coral bar.”
Calling it an island is exaggeration. It’s really more of a spit: a collection of fractured coral, sand trash and naupaka shrub that protrudes just above the waterline, maybe 40 feet wide and 200 yards long. There are a number of small spits like this outside of Keehi Harbor, just west of Honolulu.
This isn’t a classic bonefishing destination; it’s neither idyllic nor peaceful. Keehi Harbor is nestled in the industrial hub of Hawaii, between shipping docks, airport runways and a recycling plant.
The detritus of city life washes up here—broken lawn chairs, rusting aerosol cans, rotten mattresses, kaleidoscopic shards of micro-plastic. These tiny chunks of land fall outside the jurisdiction of the Honolulu police, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources seems to favor a hands-off management strategy.
Mike’s plan sounded good, so I walked with the sun at my back, reminding myself to look through the water, not at it. As I got close to the rusted piling where the giant bonefish supposedly lived, I heard a scuttle behind me. A man of indeterminate age dragged a weathered dinghy around the edge of the spit, coming my way. Strips of paint hung from the craft like sloughing skin. The tiny boat had no motor; he dragged it by a frayed bow rope, head down, along the knee-deep edge where the fish live.
I was annoyed. I’ve never landed a 12-pound bonefish, and I wanted a shot at this one, even though Mike said it would probably wrap me around the piling and immediately break off. But here was this guy, shuffling erratically like a character from that zombie show, certain to spook my fish.
I walked quickly, trying to stay ahead of him while scanning for oblong shapes. Just past the piling, he pulled the craft to shore and began rooting through a dense heap of washed-up trash, carrying the more valuable items to his dinghy.
The guy was picking through garbage to survive; I was carrying $2,000 worth of gear to amuse myself with fish I wasn’t even planning to eat. I didn’t want to think about any of that, so I kept my eyes on the water.
Halfway down the island another man, this one in his 60s with a salty gray beard that hung to his chest, mumbled to himself while assembling a makeshift barge from buoyant scraps: driftwood, foam blocks, old gas cans. I passed him with a nod that he didn’t return—getting edgy now, as if I were walking through the sketchiest part of Honolulu late at night rather than down a coral beach in the mid-morning light.
Fifty yards farther, a blue tarp bulged in the shape of a tent, a squatter’s residence. I didn’t want to see it, so I focused on the liminal space just before the dropoff, willing a big green shape to appear. When the tent was less than 20 yards away, I noticed the pit bull lying in the sand, staring me down.
I reeled up, crossed to the other shore (away from the tent and dog), and waited for Mike.
“Did you get ’em?” He powered the bow of his skiff on the beach and I hopped up.
“Never had a chance. You could have warned me about the homeless guys.”
“Where’s the fun in that? There are bonefish all over the world, but where else can you fish for them on Tweaker Island?”
“Yeah, man. They’re all meth heads out here. It’s totally lawless. The city did a raid a few years ago and they shut down the meth labs, but the tweakers are still here.”
Fishing media recently discovered that Hawaii has some of the biggest bonefish in the world. Images of 30-inch oblong brutes appear all over social media and outdoor magazines. Hawaii bonefish are indeed big, but the jaw dropping photos fail to accurately represent the state capital’s fishery. To know these fish, you have to know something about this place. I was born here, and there’s a lot I’ll never know.
The fish that live on these particular flats just outside the city make Florida Keys permit seem easy. I have cast to hundreds of tailing fish there over the years, hooked maybe 20 and landed two . . . total. O’io (Hawaiian for bonefish), like all native residents of Hawaii, are necessarily badasses.
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain in the world. That any life ever found these ancient volcanic ridges betrays logic. The first humans to settle them came from elsewhere in Polynesia. They loaded their families, pigs, dogs, chickens, taro (the staple tuber used to make poi), sweet potatoes, coconuts, bananas, sugarcane, and other essential plants into open, double-hulled canoes and sailed into the misnamed Pacific Ocean without a known destination. They crossed thousands of miles of pitching, rolling swells; found a desolate archipelago; and built a thriving society and culture.
Roughly 1,300 years after that initial settlement, King Kamehameha I ended generations of feudal war by uniting the disparate island kingdoms. In order to bring peace, he slaughtered thousands. In the decisive battle for Oahu, Kamehameha’s warriors drove the resident army off the edge of a sheer cliff. That place is now known as the Pali Lookout, and a constant stream of tour buses pours out legions of camera-wielding tourists to capture the view.
When the missionaries, and then the whaling ships, infiltrated the kingdom of Hawaii, disease wiped out most of the indigenous population; a single 1853 smallpox outbreak killed 5,000, mostly on Oahu.
In 1898, the U.S. government sent 162 heavily armed marines aboard the cruiser Boston to Honolulu. With that muscle, the American plantation owners overthrew the monarchy and imprisoned Queen Lili’uokalani inside Iolani Palace. The sovereign nation of Hawaii was thus extinguished, but Hawaiian language and culture survived.
Shallow-water species (like bonefish) that made it to Hawaii had to be just as hardy as the native people. They crossed the same vast distances of open ocean, far from their preferred feeding grounds and vulnerable to all the pelagic predators. They have remained, without any significant fisheries regulation, and despite an agricultural and urban legacy that killed the vast majority of the coral and the critters that depend on it.
O’io on Oahu aren’t typical bones. They aren’t the contentedly neurotic Bahamian specimens nosing around conch and lobster boats; they live on Tweaker Island and the flats and spits around it. They spend much of their lives feeding in exposed, shallow water where desperate people will do anything they can to kill and eat them. An expensive fishing rod, a box of flies, and a thick coating of sunblock are laughable: these fish avoid gillnets, spears, traps and rows of spinning rods soaking squid strips on 2/0 bait hooks. In September 2013, 223,000 gallons of molasses spilled in Keehi Harbor, wiping out most aquatic life. The bonefish were back in less than four months.
I grew up a skinny haole (white) kid on Oahu and know firsthand just how tough anything indigenous to that island must be. In other places, bonefish are one of the easier flats species to catch. They can forgive botched casts or clumsy presentation. But when hooked, they display a strength that defies their size. Similarly, the hospitable nature of the natives on Oahu was once renowned. They were known for being both giving, and as strong as the open-ocean swells crashing against the north shore in winter. Today, the people and the o’io retain that strength, but their hospitality, trust and naiveté have been worn away by generations of exploitation, stripped bare like the bleached coral heads in Honolulu Harbor.
This isn’t a place, or a species, to seek carelessly. Don’t expect the locals, aquatic or human, to give anything away. If you go, be humble. Walk the flats slowly and quietly. Mind the rusting World War II gun turrets; keep your eyes out for tiger sharks in the channels; and don’t go to Tweaker Island. Or maybe do go there, but bring plates of food and bottles of water. Leave the fishing rod in the boat.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.